Robin Williams in One Hour Photo (2002)



(director/writer: Mark Romanek; cinematographer: Jeff Cronenweth; editor: Jeffrey Ford; music: Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; cast: Robin Williams (Sy Parrish), Connie Nielsen (Nina Yorkin), Michael Vartan (Will Yorkin), Dylan Smith (Jakob Yorkin), Erin Daniels (Maya Burson), Eriq LaSalle (Det. Van Der Zee), Gary Cole (Bill Owens), Nick Searcy (Larry, Repairman), Clark Gregg (Detective Paul Outerbridge), Paul H. Kim (Yoshi); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Christine Vachon/Pamela Koffler/Stan Wlodkowski; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2002)
“One Hour Photo rides on the back of the inspired performance by Robin Williams…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer Mark Romanek’s (video director of the musical group Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”/”The Perfect Drug”) chilling psychodrama attempts to get under one’s skin with its suggestive creepy portrayal of soft-spoken Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) as a one hour photo clerk in Sav-Mart (a chain department store like Wal-Mart), who compensates for his empty life by trying to live his life through his customers’ photos. What develops without a hitch in One Hour Photo is the “invisible man” role grippingly played by Robin Williams. But the downbeat arty film’s faults are that everyone else remains undeveloped and the story was limited, as the entire film is affected only by what Robin Williams sees and does.

Sy is a stocky, repressed, bland, wearer of close-cropped orange hair, middle-aged bachelor living downtown in some unnamed city where he works far away in a suburban mall for the last 20 years developing photos. He’s a lonely man who puts everything he has into his job and lets his own life become meaningless, except it’s filled with angst and seethes underneath with anger. He makes an extra set of prints for himself of photos from his favorite customers. His favorite couple is the seemingly all-American upscale Yorkins, consisting of handsome design company head Will (Michael Vartan) and his pretty wife Nina (Connie Nielsen) and their adorable young son Jake (Dylan Smith). Sy greatly admires them because they appear through their happy photos to be the ideal family. Since he has no family or friends, and dines alone at family restaurants, he compensates by adopting the Yorkins as his surrogate family and pictures himself as their kindly Uncle Sy. He carries this obsession so far as to have a wall in his apartment filled with photos of his favorite customers, where at his leisure he daydreams that he’s a part of their family life. He also parks his cheaper model Toyota Echo by the Yorkins’ luxurious ranch house to regularly spy on them. They have been steady customers for the last 6 years, and he takes great pride that he has watched their son grow up with so many benefits. Nina and Jake know him by name and take a reserved but kindly interest in him. While Will chortles with class snobbishness at the seemingly harmless “photo man,” but is a bit wary of him and doesn’t trust Jake to be alone with him.

Seemingly, Sy would be the ideal employee. He always has a store-friendly smile for his customers and cares about the quality of the photos he develops. But the everpresent store manager Bill Owens (Gary Cole) smells something fishy and begins to watch him like a hawk. He discovers Sy is taking long lunch breaks and one time becomes upset with him for causing a ruckus with the repairman in front of the customers. Bill suggests that Sy takes a Club Med vacation.

Sy’s dreams of a perfect world and a perfect marriage begin to become unraveled when he slowly discovers chinks in his ideal family’s armor. He’s disappointed that Will emotionally neglects his son and wife, that there’s a bit of a strain showing in Nina’s features, and when he observes Jake at soccer practice he learns his dad never goes to the games. Sy feels he has to do something about all that, and sets his mind to straightening this family out. The viewer knows from the opening scene that Sy is in some kind of deep trouble, because he’s in a police station and is being questioned by efficient Detective Van Der Zee (LaSalle) of the suburban town’s “threat management unit.”

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

The downfall of Sy starts to snowball when he can’t live knowing his perfect family is not what he pictured them. When developing photos for the attractive Maya Burson (Daniels), he discovers photos of her kissing Will Yorkin. Not able to let that go, he slips those photos into the order Nina picks up. But the crushing blow for him was already delivered by Bill Owens, who fires him upon the discovery of all the extra prints missing but not sold. With Sy’s security blanket job no longer there, it now becomes a question of how creepy and dangerous is this mentally disturbed man.

Romanek, tastefully through his conscientious and subtle direction, does a good job of showing Sy’s mood switches and catching the dull milieu where Sy exists as a nobody. Romanek’s very keen on framing each shot in a perfectly matching color tone and making the statement that the flat colors Sy chooses at home and the anti-septic colors he’s surrounded by in the fluorescent-lit store, overwhelmingly color his empty life. These sterile colors could be sets for a sci-fi film, as they make Sy appear like an alien.

Robin Williams does a masterful job of restraining himself and letting the audience read his mind to figure out what he’s up to, something he can’t do as well when he does comedy. The outstanding direction and performance by these two is enough to make this thriller overcome its pointless trip down a road of a pat mental disorder, one that is all too familiar in films that failed to be another Psycho because they didn’t take the time to focus on small details and actually draw out genuine sympathy for their sociopath loser anti-hero.

One Hour Photo rides on the back of the inspired performance by Robin Williams, in a role where he’s asked to fall over backwards for sentimentality and to convey without showing emotion a bad and good side to his nature. The only thing Romanek couldn’t quite do was make this film tense and scary, as it had the feel of being a setup for a story that never materialized. Basically, One Hour Photo is about Robin Williams’s breakdown. The film might have been better served if it had wider ambitions to get at the underlying fears and desires that motivates those lured into the materialistic trappings of upscale suburbia rather than allowing Robin Williams’ crusade against marital infidelity to be the film’s pivotal thrust against upper-middle-class culture.


REVIEWED ON 9/23/2002 GRADE: B –